Raising a respectful child is one of the three Rs (responsibility, respect, and resiliency) that are part of a parent's job description.
If we hear a three-year-old say, "No, my do it. Get away!" that is pretty normal. But it is disrespectful for a thirteen-year-old to say, "I don't have to do that if I don't want to."
Helping your child move from one level to another takes focus and constant vigilance.
A child can also disrespect herself. That is what is happening when you hear "I'm so stupid" or "Nobody wants to eat lunch with me at school; I guess I'll just have to eat by myself."
Respect (for oneself and others) is a learned behavior, and removed by sender. The learning curve is full of roadblocks. The three most common obstacles to respect are:
1. Looking out for oneself first and ignoring another person's needs.
2. Encouraging a child's independence and at the same time helping them understand the importance of looking out for another person's needs.
3. Experiencing mistakes too harshly and creating disrespect for themselves.
Here are some ways to deal with each of these.
Looking out for oneself first. If you don't think this is a human tendency, spend an hour with a toddler. If children don't progress past this attitude, respect for others will not develop. But don't skip validating your child's needs and feelings as you teach respect for others. Telling your child he should be disappointed or mad when a teacher has been mean is essential. After that, the second step works better: teaching your child how to deal respectfully with his teacher.
When your thirteen-year-old argues, take the time to hear her point, support parts or all of what she says, and sometimes change your mind -- in favor of what your child says. Most parents skip step one (supporting a child's feelings) and go directly to step two: teaching respectful behavior. Don't make that mistake.
Balancing independence with looking out for other people's needs. Alex yells at the principal, saying it's not fair that he got an after-school suspension when his friends did the same thing and got off scot-free. That's independent thinking, but the comments and his expressions were disrespectful. Alex's parents have done a good job helping Alex know and respect his needs, but his delivery needs some work. Learning to balance independence and respect for others is a tough skill to teach, but it can be done with enough practice.
Handling mistakes too harshly. As a teenager, Erin spends too much time doing perfect homework and sometimes does not try activities because she believes she won't be able to do them perfectly. Four-year-old Taylor has a temper tantrum every time he can't find a puzzle piece or can't get a Lego piece to fit right. These children have learned that mistakes make them feel bad about themselves, rather than using mistakes to learn and improve.
Parents need to decrease this excessive internal harshness by focusing on and supporting the child's feelings that are causing the problem. Let's say Erin tells her parents she doesn't want to disappoint them by getting Bs or Cs. Now the parents know the source of the pressure and can reduce the grade expectation. Don't expect this internal harshness to go away overnight, however. It'll take awhile to see the results of the approach of addressing feelings first and correcting behavior second.
Here's the take-home lesson: When you establish your child's self-respect, teaching respect for others will be a lot easier.
Parenting and interacting with a respectful child is a pleasure for everyone.
Gary M. Unruh, MSW LCSW, is a child and family mental health counselor with nearly forty years of experience. He is the author of the award-winning book Unleashing the Power of Parental Love: 4 Steps to Raising Joyful and Self-Confident Kids